Police friends! Bulging biceps! Something called the “Internet!” These were the staples of action movies in the late 20th century, when chiseled jaws and pyrotechnics ruled. It was a time when audiences flocked to see familiar stars instead of familiar characters, when CGI was in its awkward teens, and when kids snuck into adult movies instead of the other way around.
Plenty of action movies from the 1990s have stuck in our cultural canon, from Terminator 2 to The Matrix, but many more have fallen through the cracks or been drowned out by the noise of ongoing franchises. Here are some of our favorite action movies from the ’90s that you may not have seen, but are worth your attention.
La Femme Nikita (1990)
Before launching his masterpiece, Lionin 1994, director Luc Besson caused a sensation in his native France with La Femme Nikitaanother story of murder and intrigue. Nikita stars Anne Parillaud as a recovering addict and murderer who is offered a pardon for her crimes, as long as she works as a secret assassin for the French government. Like Lion, La Femme Nikita It features a lot of great action, but since it’s a French import, it was promoted in the United States as an art film and struggled to find an audience. Despite this marketing fiasco, it has been recognized as a classic of the genre and inspired two North American television adaptations.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Decades before Disney released three Marvel movies a year, the studio hired director Joe Johnston to adapt Dave Stevens’ independent comic book series, The Rocketeerin one of the best superhero movies of the 1990s. Set in Los Angeles in 1938, The Rocketeer is a rare example of a film successfully recapturing the tone, atmosphere and fun of the Indiana Jones movies, pitting a charismatic but slightly goofy leading man against the Nazis in a stylish, high-concept adventure.
Starring the classic handsome Billy Campbell, a devilish villain Timothy Dalton and Jennifer Connelly at her most devastating, The Rocketeer it is an absolute delight. It’s no wonder that when Marvel was preparing to make their own World War II period superhero movie, Captain America the First Avenger, they recruited the same director. The fans of The First Avenger they owe it to themselves to turn on Disney+ and revisit Joe Johnston’s previous (and arguably superior) triumph.
you can stream The Rocketeer on Disney+.
Demolition Men (1993)
The ’90s were a prime period for sci-fi action movies, as the addition of high-tech or speculative futures offered a higher level than the explosive police thrillers of the previous decade. The Cold War was over, the American economy was strong, and the world was on the brink of unprecedented and rapid change. This was the environment from which he emerged Demolition Man from director Marco Brambilla, a bizarre action comedy starring the rocky actor and believe Sylvester Stallone as John Spartan, a hyper-violent cop who wakes up in a flawless future.
No one in the glittering city of San Angeles in 2032 is equipped to fight Spartan’s nemesis, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), who is on a rampage after being released from cryostasis. He relies on Spartan and his bright-eyed rookie partner (Sandra Bullock from Bullet Train) knock it down. From the outlandish comedy between Stallone and Bullock to Snipes’ unhinged, Joker-like performance, Demolition Man it’s outrageously funny, and its projections on the rise of hypercorporatization and class stratification have proven surprisingly prescient.
you can rent or buy Demolition Man in the main digital providers such as Prime Video.
Last Action Hero (1993)
Today, audiences are all about metatext, fascinated by genre, structure, and behind-the-scenes drama. But, in a world before Wikipedia and TV Tropesfew audiences knew what to do with Last Action Hero. In this silly satire, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a parody of his famous movie character alongside a pre-teen fan (Austin O’Brien) who has been magically transported into an action blockbuster. Fulfilling the fantasy of being Arnold’s partner on an adventure, the boy uses his knowledge of the movies to help the Austrian Death Machine take down the bad guys and save the day in two parallel dimensions.
It’s basically the Cabin in the Forest of action movies, years ahead of their time. Directed by John McTiernan de Die Hardwritten by Shane Black of Lethal Weapon and packed with memorable cameos, Last Action Hero It’s the perfect ending to any ’80s or ’90s action movie marathon.
Last Action Hero can be streamed on Netflix and hulu.
The Legend of the Drunken Teacher (1994)
Just a year before his American breakthrough in Rumble in the Bronx, the star of Hong Kong action Jackie Chan reprized his role as the historical martial artist and folk hero Wong Fei-Hong. His first portrayal of the character himself in 1978’s Drunken Master helped codify the art of “kung fu comedy” that would make him an international legend, but the sequel to him, Drunken Master IIcould be its maximum expression.
Chan and his crew pull off some seriously incredible stunts and fight choreography, all while delivering a slew of Buster Keaton-esque physical gags. Although it was a huge success in Hong Kong, Drunken Master II was not even released in the United States until 2000, under the new title The Legend of Drunken Master. Thanks to home video and streaming, she’s since gotten the appreciation she deserves from fans who discovered Jackie through rumble either rush hour.
The Legend of Drunken Master can be rented or purchased Prime Video.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Straight out of the horror comedy Army of Darkness, director Sam Raimi teamed up with producer and star Sharon Stone and the legendary Gene Hackman for this bizarre western. Essentially a live-action tournament anime about a cast of gimmicky gunfighters, The Quick and the Dead it’s Raimi riotous, with almost every scene showing some kind of crazy or innovative choice of direction. The camera pans and zooms in, making the old setting of Old West Town feel fresh and new.
The cast includes a Leonardo DiCaprio pre titanic and a Russell Crowe pre-Gladiator alongside beloved genre actors Keith David and Lance Henriksen, adding to the film’s appeal as something of an elevated B-movie. Along with his less successful 1993 film Darkman, The Quick and the Dead serves as a stylistic missing link between Sam Raimi’s cult classic trilogy evil dead and his trilogy of spider-man.
The Quick and the Dead is airing on Netflix.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
In the mid-1990s, Thelma and Louise and the star of A League of Their Own, Geena Davis, became a big screen action hero. Along with her then-husband, director Renny Harlin, Davis produced back-to-back action vehicles, the pirate adventure Cutthroat Island in 1995 and the crime thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight the next year. The Long Kiss Goodnight is a sharp, funny and exciting action film in which Davis stars opposite Samuel L. Jackson as a typical single mother who recovers repressed memories of being a cold-hearted killer. It was well received by critics, but faced an uphill battle with the public.
Because? Fault to Cutthroat Islandwhose disastrous reception 11 months earlier had been an industry laughing stock that brought down an entire movie studio. Neither viewers nor New Line Cinema gave The Long Kiss Goodnight plenty of opportunities, but it’s now a cult classic, thanks in part to its place in the Shane Black script canon.
The Long Kiss Goodnight is airing on HBO Max.